All signs are potentially ambiguous. If something is ambiguous, it is capable of being interpreted in more than one way. Symbols are potentially the most ambiguous sorts of signs. The U.S. Flag is a symbol; the Christian cross and the Star of David are symbols; and language, our primary tool for communication is entirely made up of symbols. Most of our commonly used symbols are ambiguous.
- The word run may mean "to sprint" (as, he ran to meet her bus); "a hole in a woman's stocking" (as, She had a run in her nylons); "a political contest" (as, He ran for office); "hoarding" (as, There was a run on propane supplies when the ice-storm was predicted); "fish spawning" (as, The salmon run may not be good this year); or "duplicating materials" (as, He ran off several copies of the article).
- The word bent may mean "stooped" (as, He bent over to pick up the paper.); "crooked" (as, The tree trunk was bent); "an inclination toward" (as, She has an artistic bent; or "a determined attitude" (as, He was bent on self-destruction).
If you take the time to peruse an unabridged dictionary, you will notice that many words, such as turn, line, point, light, make, and head each have more than fifty recorded senses. The word set has over two hundred. Extreme ambiguity is a characteristic of the symbols we use most often. Yet, even specific symbols--such as mathematical ones like "plus" +, "minus" --, "greater than" >, and "lesser than" < --are ambiguous. For example:
- + can indicate "addition" (as, 2 + 2 = 4); "positive rather than negative" (as, Her blood is Rh +); or "the possibility of more" (as, He made 4 + tries before he quit).
- -- can mean "subtraction" (as, 2--2 = 0); "negative rather than positive" (as, Attach the black cable to the -- mark on the battery); or "less than" (as, "He got an A -- on the last exam).
- > < (the symbols for "greater" and "lesser" than) can indicate a mathematical relationship, but can also indicate "direction" (as, > = right and < = left); a "hard break" in HTML programming language (as, > indicates the beginning of a new paragreaph): or a specific program instruction in HTML (as, >bold<).
Learning to recognize ambiguity is the first step in eliminating vagueness from communications. The following exercises offer opportunities for developing the skills of identifying and extinguishing ambiguity sufficiently enough to make your ideas clear.